YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

California and the West | THE WASHINGTON CONNECTION

Lessons in Civility Are a Work in Progress

May 25, 1999|FAYE FIORE

When last we left the subject of congressional civility, our 435 esteemed House members had sunk to new depths, with the California delegation shamelessly romping in the muck.

The year was 1995, the GOP had just taken over the House, and Garden Grove Republican Robert K. Dornan had been banned from the floor for calling President Bill Clinton a traitor. Hayward Democrat Pete Stark had branded one of his female GOP colleagues an insurance industry "whore." And Bakersfield Republican Bill Thomas got into such a flap over Medicare that a Florida Democrat yanked his tie.

Much has ensued since then. Horrified at the caricatures they had become, scores of members attended two therapy sessions in Hershey, Penn.--birthplace of the Hershey's Kiss. The latest was this March, where about 200 legislators took lessons in gentility from the Nobel Prize winner who helped bring peace to Northern Ireland and an actor dressed up like Abe Lincoln (who says Hollywood has no influence in Washington?).

Raising the question: Did it help?

Yielding the answer: Not much.


A University of Pennsylvania study of the 105th Congress (1995-96) suggests that House members behave somewhat better than a pack of pit bulls--provided they aren't tired or trying to impeach a president.

Most congressional observers have a general sense that members of Congress seesaw from unctuous ("Our distinguished speaker here, who is truly a gentleman and a friend") to rude (recall House Majority Leader Dick Armey's reference to the openly gay Barney Frank as "Barney Fag").

But seldom has anyone produced a list to quantify precisely how rude they can be. The university study combed thousands of pages of congressional transcripts and produced such nasty nuggets as:

* Name-calling nouns: "Weirdo, traitor, crackpot and bitch."

* Aspersions: "Irrational, reckless and un-American."

* Vulgarity: "Damn, hell and s---."'

Makes you proud to be an American.

The unruly image is further amplified by the media's tendency to focus on the worst examples of incivility, said Barbara Sinclair, a UCLA political science professor who testified last month at a House committee hearing on ways to restore decorum.

In one respect, the study suggested that the first Hershey trip back in 1997 paid off. In the immediate aftermath, vulgarity was sliced two-thirds. Name-calling and pejorative speech dropped by nearly half.

Then came impeachment and the fur flew, with ill behavior spiking on nearly every front. That is probably understandable, given the event's magnitude and partisanship. But as Sinclair notes, even on its best days, the modern-day Congress is nowhere as civil as its post-World War II predecessors. "A member characterized life in the House of the 1950s as existing in a 'cocoon of good feelings.' No one would so characterize life in the 1990s House," she said.

But Sinclair cautions that civility comes at a price. In the old days, House business was conducted behind closed doors by powerful old-boy leaders. Rank-and-file members lacked the resources, staff and seniority to be relevant. Today, a lot more of the business takes place on C-SPAN with everybody rolling up their sleeves--a diverse membership that includes everyone from former dentists and doctors to suburban mothers reincarnated as lawmakers.

That varied collection of backgrounds and interests--reflecting this nation's brawling, sprawling democracy--is perhaps one reason to tolerate behavior that would get most 12-year-olds grounded.

Another reason might be the saccharine exchanges that result when members of Congress work hard to be nice. Consider this actual dialogue:

Congressman X: "The gentleman is doing real well for a new guy."

Congressman Y: "The gentleman is, too, and I like his hair--in the spirit of Hershey and comity."

Congressman X: "I thank the gentleman."


The task of restoring civility to the House is a work in progress. Last month's hearing was convened by the soft-spoken, excruciatingly polite Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-San Dimas). Regarded as courtly even by colleagues who hate his conservative politics, Dreier puts a premium on dignity, and argues that the current 106th Congress convened in January with a clean slate.

"We have civility in the House," he insisted. "It is a misperception to believe that there is no civility. . . . There can always be more. But I am so proud of the way we have been working things in a bipartisan way over the last few months."

And considering the rancor of the impeachment session, "I am surprised," Dreier added.


Los Angeles Times Articles